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The Value of Theological Disagreement

The Value of Theological Disagreement

Earlier today I posted links to a video by Andy Stanley and a response by Michael Brown. Some people have commented on this issue indicating that it was unfair to “attack” Andy Stanley about his views.  (These were not on my blog post or its Facebook link; the controversy is widespread.) I have a few comments on this.

  1. There are those who claim that one has to listen to the entire series in order to get the context and respond. I would disagree. If you make a short video, be prepared to be challenged based on the content of that video (or audio file or blog post, for that matter). I think there is sufficient material in Stanley’s presentation to which one can respond.
  2. It’s interesting that one is expected not to respond to Stanley, yet Stanley is critiquing quite a number of other Christians. I do not criticize Stanley for doing this. If you’re going to assert that X is true and Y is not, you’re going to critique someone.
  3. As in #2, those who critique Stanley are in much the same position. If they are to assert that X is true and Y is not they will obviously be offering a critique of those who hold Y.
  4. Which leads to my main question: Why is it wrong to question theological statements, especially sweeping ones that are offered as a critique of other Christian positions?
  5. As for the “Marcionite” argument, we’re in a standard name-calling situation. For some reason, we think that by labeling someone we have responded, and, on the other hand, by defending ourselves from a label, we’re defending our position. Forget the label; ask whether the viewpoint is correct, or whether it can be improved upon.

I believe it is very important to discuss theology, and discussion involves the assertion that some things are less right than others. The idea that we can never point out what we believe is an error in the teaching of another is ludicrous. Now if we arrogate to ourselves the ability to judge someone’s salvation or their standing with God, that’s another matter. But to assert that some things are true is by nature to assert that others may be less accurate or perhaps untrue.

In this issue, I actually go farther than I perceive Michael Brown is going. I don’t believe there is a singular, straightforward distinction between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. I believe that there are many cases of God changing the way in which he relates, as God carries out God’s plan to save humanity. Thus the Christian Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments should be read as a single story. There are points of distinction, but they occur in a variety of ways and are usually envisioned ahead and then their interpretation grows afterwards.

I object to simply dismissing a portion of scripture. You have accomplished nothing of value, I believe, by unhitching the New Testament from the Old, first because they are connected by much more than a hitch. There is an earth-shattering change with the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, but this takes place in the midst of a growing understanding of God and his actions in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we struggle to understand this completely millenia later.

As an example, many—I suspect the vast majority—of those who heard Jesus may have been surprised by his attitude toward the gentiles, and may have similarly been concerned by the church’s mission to the gentiles. Indeed, the gospels and Acts record that many were. But Isaiah (2nd/3rd Isaiah, 40-66) would not have been so shocked. One may point to differences, yet I think Jesus appears no more radical in his look at the law than Isaiah 56. So if the audience was shocked, they were missing some of the lead-up story. I think they may have been less shocked than modern people imagine. There were many viewpoints in Judaism at the time.

And if Isaiah 56 wasn’t radical enough, then perhaps Ruth or Jonah would take the place of radical scripture. Or, if we really wanted to get down to it, we might note Genesis 12:3, Genesis 17:5 (from Abram’s call and covenant).

There are certainly things that are hard to deal with in the Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament. There are also some of those in the New. My problem with a dismissive solution, broadly stated, is that the texts are still there. God has been working with people for a very long time and people have been interpreting God’s actions for a very long time.

So let’s disagree, critique, and grow. A bit of love and generosity would be good as we do so.

(Featured Image Credit: OpenClipart.org.)

The Sacred Scriptures of the Early Church

The Sacred Scriptures of the Early Church

I struggled with the title, as this is almost entirely links, and the issues raised cover so much ground. I’m posting these particularly for my Romans study on Wednesday nights.

In both the current class and my previous series on Hebrews I maintained that the New Testament was not intended to set aside the Old, or the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, I refer to the idea that Hebrews is doing that is an author climbing out on a limb and then cutting it off behind himself.

On the Charisma Magazine web site Dr. Michael Brown responds to a video by Andy Stanley.

I would suggest listening to Andy Stanley and see if you can hear some of the approaches to the Old Testament I mentioned. Michael Brown provides what I consider a good response. I’m glad to note he sent Andy Stanley a copy of his critique (see Brown’s article), but I do not accept that they are not that far apart, as Stanley says. Note that the majority of the issues are in the first five minutes of the video, but I think it then pervades the rest in more subtle ways, then comes out more strongly at the end.

Anyone who has heard me teach will know my view on this.

Here are a couple of related books I publish.

 


Thoughts on Releasing a New Book about Jonah

Thoughts on Releasing a New Book about Jonah

esther and jonahI believe that it’s easy to let our theology keep us from reading the Bible, especially the narrative parts. The Bible is filled with stories. One example is the story of the flood. When Genesis 6 says (using the KJV), “It repenteth me that I have made man,” the first reaction is to try to explain how God didn’t really repent, thus preserving doctrines of omniscience expressed particularly in foreknowledge. A vigorous desire to preserve one’s theology can prevent one from hearing the story as it is actually told.

Jonah is just such a story. It’s very easy to make this a story about obeying God. The story was explained to me when I was a child as an illustration of the bad things that could happen to you if you went against God’s will. Another lesson, often taught at the same time, is that God can and does work miracles. Many people have seen belief in the whale (really more like “great fish”) as a test of one’s belief in the truth of scripture.

But to spend our time on the reality of the great fish, whether to disparage the idea or uphold it, is to stray from the story.

I’ve been delighted to publish a couple of books by Bruce Epperly that deal with Bible stories from a less theologically defensive position. Bruce tends to let the stories speak and as such he gets lessons from them that we might otherwise miss. A few months ago we released Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure. I commend that study to you.

This week we released another book about stories, Jonah: When God Changes. Just the subtitle is likely to unsettle a few people. I think it’s good to be unsettled. I think that Jonah was unsettling when it was first written and it was intended to be.

We often have to work hard to love and care for people who are actually very similar to us. We tend to discount the command of Jesus to love our enemies. But in Jonah we have a call to love people we now hate—and with good reason!—and to take God’s message to them. While Jonah’s message sounds like a “fire and brimstone” sermon, it becomes a call to salvation, just as Jonah feared it would (read the last chapter)!

Bruce really works this little book and calls to our attention things we might normally miss in pursuit of theological comfort. I suggest that you give up that comfort and read the book!


We’ll have it for $4.19 pre-order pricing (even though it’s already printing) on Energion Direct. We’ll keep that up through Labor Day. Find a couple of other books to go with it so your order is at least $9.99 and you’ll get free shipping.

The Old Testament: Serious Illness, Strong Medicine

The Old Testament: Serious Illness, Strong Medicine

9781893729902I ran across this while looking for something else. Dr. Alden Thompson was the author of the first book sold by Energion Publications, though it was published before I bought and renamed the company. We’ve now published a 5th edition, and this is overall our best selling book.

In this presentation Alden using a number of Adventist specific references, but I think the message comes through. There are a variety of responses to the violence in the Old Testament. One of the keys to Alden’s approach is his insistence that it is all inspired, even the parts we don’t like very much, and he makes that claim in the video. Alden’s teaching at Walla Walla University was quite formative of my theology and I still enjoy working with him. We’ll be releasing a second edition of his book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers later this year, as the publisher of the first edition allowed it to go out of print.

Preaching from the Old Testament

Preaching from the Old Testament

violence and scripture booksNo, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.

I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.

This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.

Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.

I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:

  1. Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
  2. Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
  3. Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
  4. When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
  5. The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
  6. Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.

I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.

In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.

Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.

On Violence and Suffering

On Violence and Suffering

9781893729902fMy friend and Energion author Allan Bevere posted this morning on this topic, and I want to call attention to it for several reasons. First, this is a topic I find very interesting. Second, I think it’s appropriate to discuss the problems of violence and suffering together at some points. Third, I don’t think that emphasizing a distinction between the Old and New Testaments really solves the problem. It ditches some texts, so if your plan is to explain things away text by text you make your task easier. But the basic issues remain the same.

I also was reading my own book notes on Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem. Ehrman tends to set a lot of people off, but I don’t find him all that annoying. Do I disagree? Yes, in many ways. But that just makes life interesting. Recently, I published a book on this topic, Bruce Epperly’s Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job. It’s interesting to see what different results people get from reading the same material. Note that Epperly is a progressive Christian and his approach illustrates one of the problems in religious dialog: We dialog with one group and it is applied to a much broader group. I used Waltke in my notes (link above), and Waltke definitely takes a different approach from that of Ehrman. Yet so does Epperly, and it’s a different different approach.

Then there’s the book Allan is reading, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? As the publisher, I’m obviously very happy with that book, but I should add that Alden Thompson was my undergraduate advisor and taught me Hebrew (2nd & 3rd year). The fourth edition of the book was also the first title released by Energion Publications.

Now, to add to the fun, we’re planning a discussion between Allan Bevere (The Character of Our Discontent), Alden Thompson, and myself. It’s scheduled for June 2, 2015. Watch for more information here or on any of my social media feeds.

 

Yet More Hebrews and Old Testament-New Testament Continuity

Yet More Hebrews and Old Testament-New Testament Continuity

One of the things I love about both blogging and publishing is the number of interesting and capable people I get to interact with. It’s something I’ve missed since graduate school days—the opportunity to run my ideas up against people who can really challenge them.

Dave Black has written some commentary on this matter of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. I’ve extracted the relevant entry from his blog and reposted it to JesusParadigm.com. (For those who don’t know, Dave’s blog doesn’t provide a way to link to a particular entry.) If you haven’t, read Dave’s notes. There is a great deal there. I intend to respond to the matter of who I publish over on the Energion Publications blog. (I’ll add a link here once I’ve done that.)

I think Dave and I are quite close to agreement, though I do think we have some difference of emphasis. Perhaps his is a more radical approach, and I think the parallel to ecclesiology and the Anabaptist movement as opposed to the more traditional reformers. In fact, labeling them “more traditional” may summarize the whole issue. This does not, of course, tell us who is right. I think my difference with Dave here would be that I allow for more variation for time, place, and culture. I think that is in one sense a minor difference, but not truly insignificant.

The problem with radical reformation is that it may get derailed in practice. As I read Scripture, God has always led his people with some consideration for their starting point. I’ll say a bit more on this in a later paragraph regarding the study of Torah. So the perfect, or even the “better” becomes the enemy of the good. I see this in my own church. I can look from one angle and say, “There is so much wrong with this church.” (Some might note as a problem that it has Henry Neufeld as a member!) But if I look from another angle, there is so much that is going right in the church, including the fact that the gospel is being preached there regularly. What do I want to reform and when do I want to reform it? Of course, the reality is that I have very little to say on that. The pastoral staff and the church council do most of that work, and I’m involved in neither group.

But there is a problem with the “gradual change” folks as well, and I think the reformation provides examples of this. Gradual change often becomes stagnation. We don’t become more Christlike on a continuing basis, but instead become, in our own eyes, more Christ-like than our neighbors and then hang out there, or even begin deteriorating from that point. I think that if you look at the energy and focus of the Methodist movement during John Wesley’s lifetime and then at the United Methodist Church now, you don’t see progress.

But how does this relate to the Old Testament/New Testament continuity or discontinuity?

To steal a phrase from Paul: Much in every way!

I see the progress from the Old Testament to the New as one of moving to the next chapter of a book, one that we, as Christians, see as the climactic chapter. So there is a substantive change as we enter into the final phase, the solution of the whole mystery, the resolution of the conflict. That is very different. But at the same time, we should not say that previous chapters were bad because they weren’t providing the whole solution. Rather, those chapters led up to the final chapter. They provided the clues. They provided the background. the seeds of the conclusion were planted there.

The priesthood of all believers, for example, is foreshadowed in Exodus 19:6, but it is a strong New Testament concept. The latter verses of Exodus 20 (after the giving of the 10 commandments) tell us something of why. The people were afraid and didn’t want god speaking directly to them. There was comfort in having Moses and Aaron handle that part for them. There was comfort in having a priesthood. I suspect that the priesthood of all believers frightens us now for the same reason. We share the same human failings as the people around Mt. Sinai. We’d like something solid and comfortable that doesn’t tell us things that are upsetting. They turned to the golden calf. We turn to our denominational structures. “We’re Methodists,” I’m told, “We don’t do things like that.” It’s the same avoidance.

Hebrews uses Jeremiah 31:31-34 which foreshadows the same idea. From looking at these texts in their place in the story, I began to see certain of the texts not as a destination, so much as a road map leading forward. The author of Hebrews taps into that road map and proposes to draw the path forward and say something about the destination. But everyone knowing the Lord is something that looks good on paper, or when spoken by the prophet. Just don’t make anyone implement it. Or is it not the same attitude that is displayed when someone says, “Please just tell me what this means! Don’t go into all those details!”

There is a tendency to think of the professional class of pastors keeping the people away from their priesthood. And there are doubtless times and places where that is what’s going on. But I see more of a refusal to take that much responsibility for our own souls, our own calling, and our own decision making. Because of the priesthood of all believers the failings of the church are my failings. I do not get to blame this on others. Jesus has called me. I do not have permission to blame it on the paid pastor.

But God’s ideal for Israel, expressed in many of the very passages quoted in Hebrews, was the same. It was for all to know God for themselves. This is one of the things I have learned in studying about what Christians call the “ceremonial law.” It was a teaching tool. It was not God’s intention to leave the priesthood in the hands of the few. It was God’s intention to eventually have a nation of priests.

Is there discontinuity? Yes, but it is the discontinuity of turning back to the ideal, to what God had planned all along. It is radical in the extent to which it is not radical.

Dave asked how much we differ. I think not that much on the Old Testament/New Testament discontinuity, though I am ready to have this view adjusted. On the nature of reform and how to carry it out, perhaps we differ a bit more.

I’ll have to write some more about ecclesiology. That might get us to the more serious differences.

 

 

Two Old Testament Books (or Preach More from the Old Testament)

Two Old Testament Books (or Preach More from the Old Testament)

My company is offering special prices on all our books related to the Old Testament. I decided to blog a bit about the books we’re offering. So if you don’t want to hear about books that are for sale, this one isn’t for you. On the other hand, I promise to be wordy, tell stories, and fail to get to the point for paragraphs at a time. As usual! And by the way, this got started because we’ve put Ecclesiastes: A Participatory Study Guide, the first in the series on an Old Testament book, on pre-order. Look for it in mid-November. I’ll talk about it later in the week.

This morning I was thinking about two books, because they relate so closely to my own Christian experience and to a weakness I see in the church and the way we teach the Bible. The first is by one of my college professors, Dr. Alden Thompson. He guided me through my second and third year of Hebrew as well as any number of questions that arose. I never did take an introduction to the Old Testament, though I took several Old Testament courses other than Hebrew, but I did dig into the theology enough to keep the discussion lively.

Alden is primarily concerned with getting Christians to study the Old Testament more, and with letting people know that you can find God’s story of grace there as well as in the New Testament. His book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, was released after I graduated, but I read it with great interest, and when I was invited to teach later in a Methodist church, I found it was no longer in print. I got some remaindered copies from him, and then later got permission to issue two different comb bound editions. These got me through a number of classes, but we referred to one of them as the “unfortunate edition.” This was also before Energion Publications had come into existence.

We issued a fourth edition, properly printed and bound, though the printer did not produce the best quality work. I purchased several thousand of those books from another organization I’d been working with and used that as the starting point for Energion Publications. So Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (now in its fifth edition) is a key part of the history of the company.

Alden’s focus can be found in two stories, I think. When I first contacted him about his book, some 20 years after we had last talked, his first question, before he wanted to talk about books, was this: “How are things with your soul?” Authors tend to care about their books, especially if there’s an opportunity to get them reprinted. But that was his first thought. Later, when he came to teach at Pine Forest United Methodist Church here in Pensacola, he told the group that the measure of his success as a teacher would be whether he left them loving God and one another more than when he came. I like that.

The book itself can be mildly (or more than mildly) controversial, as one would expect of a book that has chapters covering Judges 19-21 (read it if you don’t understand why), and another on the Messianic prophecies. It’s easy to generate an argument on those topics. But I’ve seen a lot of people spending more time with their Old Testaments after hearing Alden speak about it. If nothing else, his enthusiasm for the topic draws people in.

The second book is related, though it comes more from my present than my past. It’s written by Methodist pastor and seminary professor Allan R. Bevere. It’s based on sermons he preached from the Old Testament. Now there are those who are turned off by collections of sermons. I like them, provided they are good sermons that serve a purpose, and that they apply to a broad audience. The book is The Character of Our Discontent, I think this book has not gotten the attention it deserves. The vast majority of times that I hear sermons from the lectionary, the text is from the gospel lesson. Now I don’t have any problem preaching from the gospels. But I don’t think people will understand the whole story if they don’t get the background to the gospels by learning from the Bible Jesus used.

So I’d see two purposes to this book. First, it can be read for devotional reading. I’d take an essay at a time. You’ll find your spiritual life growing when your devotionals don’t just come from the Sermon on the Mount, but also take in characters like Samson and texts from books such as Leviticus or Ezekiel. But second, if you’re a pastor, consider looking at this pattern of presenting material from the Old Testament.

And unlike Alden Thompson, Allan Bevere is a New Testament scholar. Just because you specialize in the New Testament doesn’t mean you can’t include preaching from the Old. You may even have some special perspective.

 

 

Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last

Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last

This week’s lectionary (RCL) texts for this week (Proper B11) form an interesting set, complete with the occasional weird cut-off for the scripture. For example, 2 Samuel 7:1-14a chops off the last part of Nathan’s message to David, the part about both the eternal covenant and the potential for God’s discipline. As I read this, I was thinking that they didn’t want to go into that “eternal covenant” territory.

(Note that for this post I am reading the Old Testament as a Christian and I am not making use of Jewish interpretation. I use “Old Testament” when referring to the Hebrew scriptures as a part of the Christian Bible. I use “Hebrew scriptures” to refer to them as a literary collection or as the Jewish Bible.)

But then we have Psalm 89:20-37. Here they have all the stuff about the eternal covenant, but they don’t go on to deal with the most important topic of the Psalm. Verse 38 (not part of the reading) begins:

But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground (38-39 NET).

If you continue reading you get a scene that sounds very much like the Babylonian exile or thereafter, though there might be a couple of other dates that would fit in. In fact, the author of this Psalm is addressing God specifically because he doesn’t see the eternal covenant being fulfilled. Rather, at this point it is impossible for that covenant to be fulfilled as originally written because it called for a descendant of David to be on the throne “forever” and “forever” is not to be interrupted. Unfortunately “forever” has been interrupted.

Now there are a number of Christian workarounds for this issue, and most readers likely will have one so readily to mind that they may never have noticed the problem in the first place. We get so used to an imposed or traditional interpretation that we actually hear the interpretation when we think we’re reading the text.

Many of our common answers involve what I call in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method “text trimming.” Using this method we trim a text down to size so we can claim either that we obey the command or that a promise or prediction has been fulfilled. In this case a common interpretation for this eternal covenant is that Jesus is of the lineage of David, and either is now sitting on David’s throne (conveniently, if figuratively, transported to heaven), or that at a future date Jesus will sit on David’s throne, thus fulfilling the terms of the covenant.

But somebody future sitting on David’s throne again, or someone sitting on a throne somewhere else doesn’t fulfill the terms of the covenant as expressed here. In fact, these terms cannot and will not be fulfilled because they have already been overcome by events–specifically there was and is a time when no son of David has been sitting on the throne of Israel. To make this seem like a fulfillment, we must make the covenant itself say less than it actually says.

If we transport ourselves briefly to a time when the door was still open, but this very issue was front and center, we may see some of the difficulties. I refer to the time when Jerusalem was under its final siege prior to the 586 BCE fall of Jerusalem. There we have some people saying that the city cannot fall because it is, after all, the location of God’s house, and God has promised that there will be a descendant of David on the throne.

Jeremiah has to argue that there is no safety here. The city can fall. The king can be removed. The temple can be destroyed. He makes an extended argument to this effect in Jeremiah 18, which is sometimes quoted to support God’s sovereignty. “Yes, indeed! God can do whatever he wants!” But that is not the intent at all.

There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it (Jeremiah 18:7-10 NET).

I recommend reading the entire chapter. The message here is not so much God’s sovereignty, though that is a fundamental assumption of the chapter. Rather, it is that God responds to our actions. Eternal blessings involve responsibilities. You can reverse the blessing, but the good news is that you can also reverse the punishment.

The book of Jonah illustrates this point in narrative form. Jonah assumes the type of theology that Jeremiah states explicitly. Jonah is actually afraid that God will be merciful and won’t fulfill the promise, yet the story does not include any notion that Jonah preached a possibility of repentance. He hoped the Ninevites would not repent. He was annoyed when they weren’t destroyed. (Again, read the whole book! It’s only four chapters.)

So what do we do with eternal promises that don’t happen precisely as predicted?

First, Psalm 89 itself makes it clear that any variation here doesn’t involve abandoning Israel. Canonizing this as part of Christian scripture (or accepting it as canonical) indicates that we believe God is in action in Psalm 89, after the king has been removed. God is still active with his people Israel. We acknowledge through this act that Israel is not abandoned, even if we don’t always remember that we did.

Second, we have another explicit statement of God’s approach in Jeremiah, this time in chapter 31:31-34. (Again, if you are not well acquainted with this passage, shame on you, go read it!) This is the famous passage used extensively in the book of Hebrews. I am reading it in Jeremiah’s context (to the best of my ability), however, and what I want to note is that the new covenant made is not with someone else, but with the house of Israel.

There is an argument that God transfers his promises from Israel (Israel is said to have failed) to either the church or in some cases to another nation. There are those who think the United States has become God’s chosen people in some way. But a sudden transfer of the promises from Israel to the church is not a good option, because the new covenant is made with Israel.

I base my interpretation here heavily on Jeremiah, even though I started with Psalm 89, because Jeremiah is the guy who had to deal with this issue when it was live. He had to proclaim his view of the covenant and the results of violating it in the face of torture and death, not sitting comfortably in front of his computer screen or in a church office somewhere.

At the same time, if we as Christians are to understand this as God’s will, and ourselves as part of God’s will, we will have to see some way in which we become connected. Thus we “trim the text” in some ways, allowing modification, but it’s a modification that is, I think, well supported. Jeremiah maintains there is a new covenant. Even the old covenant called for Israel to bless the entire world.

Paul makes his argument in Romans 9-11, which is again less concerned with God’s sovereignty, though that is again a fundamental assumption of the passage, but rather with how God deals with Israel. Like a parent, God doesn’t say, “I think I’ll put aside this one son in favor of someone else.” Rather, he looks to extend his blessing. Thus we gentiles are grafted in and receive some of God’s blessing. (It would be interesting to spend some time on Paul’s use of scripture in Romans 9-11. He does some interesting things!)

It’s easy here to imagine that the Jews must somehow be blessed less. It’s hard for us to understand that God’s love and his blessings are not a limited commodity. When I became a step-parent I was careful never to suggest that my step-children should love their birth father less. I loved them as my own, but I knew the love was shared, yet I felt no loss. Love isn’t a limited commodity either. And we, limited as we are, can add more people into our circle of love. So can God.

But even here we can make a mistake. We often see “chosen-ness” as being chosen to receive blessings, to be the best loved favorite. But God tends to choose people to do things. Jeremiah was chosen, just as Israel was chosen. It was a different time and place and different purpose (though not as different as it might seem), but being chosen wasn’t fun for Jeremiah. In fact, it was quite miserable.

So the gentile church has no cause for boasting or for thinking of themselves as better than others. That’s not the point of being chosen by God. The point of being chosen by God is mission–whatever mission God has for you.

Thus while I say that the promise cannot be fulfilled as written, because it wasn’t, yet God is faithful to act with consistency. A rebellious church might consider a serious reading of Jeremiah 18.